Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Levelling the disability hierarchy

  • 03 December 2010

Today is the International Day of People with Disability, which aims to promote a positive image of people with disability. The day is designed to recognise and celebrate the skills, abilities and achievements of people with a disability, and their contributions to community life.

This is a welcome area of endeavour in Australia, where it frequently appears that the community views people with disabilities variously with admiration, surprise, bewilderment and fear.

In a submission to the Productivity Commission's inquiry into a disability care and support scheme, a mother and carer of a profoundly intellectually disabled adult articulated a disability 'hierarchy', which differentiates disability types according to how society perceives and accepts people with those disabilities.

People who are fully intellectually able and articulate are championed. We're amazed by Matt Hallat, a Paralympian downhill skier with one leg; by Nick Vujucic, who was born without limbs but shares his story and hope with others; by the mind and ideas of Stephen Hawking, who has cerebral palsy; and by Hilary Lister, a quadriplegic woman who sailed around the word solo.

We have every reason to be impressed. Many able-bodied people could not achieve these feats.

Similarly, people without intellectual disability but with some physical impairment are respected by the community, particularly if they work in important or high-profile roles.

Australia's Disability Discrimination and Race Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes (who lives with blindness), comedian Adam Hills (who has a prosthetic leg) and broadcaster Wendy Harmer (who had a cleft palate) fit this category. Regular 'Joes' (and 'Josies') with full intellectual capacity are also accepted.

Yet acceptance is not so forthcoming for people with intellectual disabilities. Although some individuals with a mild intellectual impairment have achieved success in sport or the arts, and this is celebrated to a degree, by and large people with intellectual disabilities do not experience the same acceptance.

If a mental impairment is mild, and an individual can care for themselves, converse, form relationships and work, the lack of acceptance is not so pronounced. There are kind-hearted people who regularly engage with people with intellectual disabilities, and even foster friendships.

Unfortunately, where a mental impairment is more severe or profound, or coupled with physical disability, wider acceptance evaporates. It can